Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Kenmare, Co. Kerry – Killorglin, Co. Kerry
Kenmare is a town to which I’d like to return when I have more time. It’s situated at the head of Kenmare Bay, right on the sea, and yet gives access to some of the loveliest inland countryside in Ireland. In addition, there are two peninsulas to explore—the Iveragh and the Beara—with rugged coastlines and sheltered coves (this was smuggling territory once), as well as many hiking, biking, and golfing opportunities. One could spend a whole vacation right there, in County Kerry, where the locals have a lilting, song-like accent.
For once we were not the only early risers in the dining room: there were four older Americans, dressed for biking, and a younger couple, neither bikers nor American. Since people-watching is something I enjoy, and since Americans do speak rather loudly, breakfast was quite interesting!
But soon we were back in the car, on the popular route called “the Ring of Kerry,” which circles the Iveragh Peninsula. We didn’t have time to travel the entire Ring, so we drove south to Sneem, for just a taste.
Then we circled around again, on smaller back-roads (R568), climbing into the mountains (Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, they’re called!) on twisting roads—and with sheep everywhere.
I know I keep mentioning the sheep, but I really found this aspect of driving quite charming: sheep munching grass, sheep asleep on the side of the road (literally), sheep watching us pass, or not. Sheep taking a stroll in the road. Sheep decorating the landscape in every possible way. Black-faced sheep, white-faced sheep. Sheep, sheep, sheep!
We drove through Moll’s Gap on the N71, which cuts through bleak bogland and high mountains, with stunning views… which we only occasionally had to share with tour buses.
Even my smattering of geology helped me recognize a sweet little corrie lake (corries formed in glacial times, when ice slid down the side of a mountain and carved out a bowl, which became the lake; corries are quite round, and deep, and the surrounding terrain looks almost like an armchair, with a high cliff on one side). This is such an old, old land, and it wears its origins right out where you can see it, if you know what you’re looking at.
There were so many spectacular views to take photos of, I was starting to see even twelve inches on the outside of the yellow line that defines the edge of the road as room enough to pull over! God knows everyone else did it (those crazy tourists)!
The interesting thing about Ireland is that one moment you can be in the lowlands, the next in rugged coastal terrain, into mountains, and then all at once into a deep forest, indistinguishable, really, from the deep forests I know from my youth in northern California. Deep shade, and pine needles everywhere.
Inside the park, on the shores of a beautiful lake, is the focal point—Muckross House, built 1839–1843 for Henry Arthur Herbert and his wife, the watercolorist Mary Balfour Herbert. This was actually the fourth house that successive generations of the Herbert family had occupied at Muckross over a period of almost two hundred years.
We parked, intending to walk to the house. But local entrepreneurs have set up near the site, offering rides on the grounds in “jaunting cars”—a horse-drawn, two-wheeled cart, the technology of which hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. At rest, the cart tilts up; it requires the weight of a body or two to bring it level. The young woman who approached us was hard to resist, and soon I found myself looking at the inside of a cart tilted nearly vertical, into which I was expected to pull myself!
I must say, once we were loaded, the cart ride really was an exhilarating way to view the gardens and approach the house.
We were let off at the house, which we toured on our own. The rest of its history is that it was purchased in 1899 by a member of the Guinness (yes, that Guinness) family, who rented it out to wealthy parties, primarily for its fishing and game hunting. Then in 1911 the property was bought by William Bowers Bourn, a wealthy American, as a wedding present for his daughter Maud and her Irish husband. But Maud died unexpectedly in 1929, and three years later her husband and her parents presented Muckross House and its estate to the Irish nation, which thereby created Ireland’s first National Park. Today the principal rooms are furnished in Victorian period style and portray the elegant lifestyle of the nineteenth-century land-owning class.
Leaving the park, we drove into Killarney for a brief shopping stop—I bought a beautiful red sweater. Killarney is pretty touristy, though, so we moved on to the village of Killorglin, where we had lunch at Kerry’s Vintage Inn (a pub, natch). I ordered the Guinness beef stew, a huge bowl of stew meat and carrots, which would have been plenty, but which was accompanied by a large bowl of … well, plain boiled potatoes. Under normal circumstances I would not have thought a bowl of boiled potatoes to be particularly exciting, but I must tell you that these were the most flavorful spuds I have ever put in my mouth!
Since this post has gotten long, I’ll stop here and continue in another entry. Stay tuned!